Morality and Law
Images of War in Historical Memory

On May 8, the Valdai Club will hold an online presentation of its new report, titled “Forgive but Not Forget? The Image of War in Culture and Historical Memory”. This article by Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, encapsulates the main findings of the report, soon to be published on our website in the corresponding section.  

The 75th anniversary of the Soviet and allied victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War draws special attention to the issues of historical memory and its impact on modern politics and public opinion. Historical memory and how it is understood play a major role in forming civic solidarity, creating links between generations and making citizens feel like they have a personal stake in the state of affairs.  At the international level, the harmonisation and convergence of historical narratives in different countries could prove instrumental in establishing a constructive dialogue between societies on contemporary issues and overcoming the existing negative stereotypes of other countries and their people. Thus, it’s quite appropriate to say that historical memory is a value that significantly determines both social and political behaviour.

Over the past three decades, there has been a greater focus on reinterpreting and reconstructing historical memory throughout the world, not least in Central and Eastern Europe. In many of the countries of the region, these processes were set in motion by the emergence of newly independent states and the collapse of the socialist system. Historical memory began to play a key role in shaping the ethnic identity of states and the policy of cultivating new values ​​and attitudes in public opinion. This example clearly illustrates the direct connection between the values of historical memory and nationalism, understood both in the broader civic (positive) sense and, in some cases, in the narrow negative sense of national exceptionalism.

Among other things, these processes led to conflicting national historical narratives. Some of them began to have a major impact on the politics of the day and on political stereotypes of other countries and people. At times, the result has been actual wars. In virtually all armed conflicts in Europe over the past 30 years, mutually exclusive historical narratives have played a significant role in polarising public opinion and escalating conflict. The months leading up to Victory Day have inflamed the wars of historical memory over World War II. The chain of events is well known, the reasons are clear, and so there’s no need to dwell on them.

Ideological Constructs of the Second World War in Modern Discourse

More importantly, we know from the conflict resolution literature that it is much harder to solve conflicts of values, such as historical memory, than conflicts of interests. Confronted with opposing interests, there is always the possibility that some kind of compromise can be reached by identifying the limits of the negotiating space and beginning to slowly move towards a mutually acceptable solution. Values ​​are not subject to compromise. They represent a kind of primordial paradigm governing our behaviour, so it is extremely difficult to bridge divides over values. However, it should be noted that even though historical memory is a value, the politics of shaping historical memory is a matter of national interest, as noted above. Thus, a conflict of values can express itself as a conflict of interests. While this complicates matters, it also creates space to identify solutions.

Historical memory, such as memory of World War II, is shaped in a variety of ways. There is the expert knowledge available to a fairly small group of historians who are familiar with the sources and trained in historical research. At first glance, it would appear easier for them to reach a consensus (the Russian-Polish group of historians on complex issues at the turn of the 2000s and in the 2010s is a case in point). However, as the saying goes, “one cannot live in society and be free of society”, and historians are no exception. Indeed, some scholars’ willingness to fashion narratives that were politically convenient in their societies likely played an important part in escalating historical memory wars.

Historical memory, as reflected in public opinion, is not broadly shaped by scholarly books or articles. The media and cultural spaces play the key role here in translating historical knowledge (and, occasionally, historical myths). Speeches by politicians, resolutions of parliaments and political parties on historical issues, interviews with historians in popular publications, documentary and feature films, prose, poetry and much more are the mechanisms by which historical memory is created.

Understanding how such mechanisms operate and how various historical assessments and attitudes spread in public opinion is of particular importance when analysing the politics of historical memory.

One of the important aspects of this approach is to be found in the analysis of the image of war in the modern cultural and information space. It is associated with various philosophical concepts of war, as well as with more simplified and stereotyped media narratives that reveal images of war to wide public opinion in one format or another. Here we can emphasise the comparison and opposition of two of these kinds of narratives. One of them, relatively speaking, is heroic, where the emphasis on the representation of war is placed on exploits and valour; this approach is closely connected with military ethics, which are traditionally focused on the concepts of courage and honour. As part of this narrative, attention is often focused on war in the context of protecting life, liberty, and the independence of one’s homeland. Another narrative is tragic. Here in the centre are the horrors of war, its numerous victims, destruction, war crimes, a cynical view of society’s adaptability to war, and human grief.

To be sure, war contains plenty of both, and these narratives are not in discordance with one another, but rather address different aspects of war. The only question is how they are correlated. Finding a balance is important. If the balance is upset, war may become completely devoid of glory, as is the case in modern culture. In its ultimate form, this is actualised in the so-called “dark war narrative” which seeks to prove that war brings out the worst in humans, where patriotism is replaced by philistine sarcasm and alienation.  In this context, the question arises about the much broader subject of the “post-heroic” society in the modern world as an integral part of global consumer culture.

Such a post-heroic society is no longer interested in the cult of valour and feat, and therefore films and books reflecting it are not objectively in demand. At the same time, there is another aspect, along with de-heroisation, it can be arbitrarily called the “gamification” of war. The built-in perception of war in the modern world of virtual computer programs, as well as the increasing prevalence of contactless technologies for conducting real hostilities (drones, etc.) has led to the fact that the war in public opinion becomes not a feat or a tragedy, but only another computer toy. This brings to life the excessive ease of perception of war, its frivolity. Such a game of war becomes therefore one of the most important features of a post-heroic society.

The next important aspect is connected with the frequent politicisation of the image of war, both in the cultural space and in historical memory as a whole. We have already mentioned the inter-connection of military-historical and modern political narratives. This is also valid at the international level, as cases where certain military films are banned from being showed in countries that are portrayed negatively as an enemy are becoming more frequent. 

Moreover, this doesn’t just concern the Second World War, but other conflicts as well. At the domestic level, historical memory is also used in the political and ideological struggle. There are frequent cases in different countries when the actions of the state to spread the memory of the war are perceived by the sceptical part of society only as an ideological campaign carried out exclusively for modern political purposes, for the  social mobilisation of the masses. Thus, attempts to regenerate the memory of the war can encounter uncritical, but nevertheless significant barriers from a post-heroic society.

In general, the current dynamics of the perception of the historical memory of the war are, as it were, between two extremes. On the one hand, it is an extremely tragic and pessimistic formula about “the banality of evil”, in the words of  Hannah Arendt. On the other hand, this is what the social psychologist James Hillman called “a terrible love of war”. Proponents of these two points of view are extremely polarised and hardly ever hear each other. All this makes the dialogue on the ways of reconciling historical memory an extremely difficult and ungrateful affair.

In conclusion, the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany and the war’s conclusion are at the centre of a significant amount of research as well as Russia’s media and cultural landscape. Importantly, this renewed focus on historical memory must not slacken once the celebrations are over. If we want public opinion to be stable on this set of issues, it is important to ensure that memory of the Second World War and our victory remain instrumental in the effort to consolidate our societies rather than a one-off campaign.

Morality and Law
Forgive but Not Forget? The Image of War in Culture and Historical Memory
Oleg Barabanov, Konstantin Pakhalyuk, Matthias Uhl
Historical memory and how it is understood play a major role in forming civic solidarity, creating links between generations and making citizens feel like they have a personal stake in the state affairs.


Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.